By Charlie Melk
On the morning of the Prologue of the 2004 Tour de France I’m feeling just a
little bit nostalgic. Watching reruns of Lance Armstrong’s five Tour de France
victories on OLN just prior to live coverage of the Prologue, it strikes me as
odd that I’m sitting in a hotel room in my home town - the town where I first
discovered cycling in a roundabout way over 20 years ago. We all have our own
stories about how we became attached at the hip to this amazing sport, and
perhaps my story isn’t so different from yours.
You see, I had spent my entire childhood destroying bikes; not out of spite,
of course, but more out of youthful exuberance and recklessness, and this would
become a recurring theme in my life as the years grew longer and the excuses for
such behavior grew ever shakier, by the way - but I’m getting ahead of myself.
There were the outlandishly huge jumps we would build and dare each other to
mindlessly hurtle our assumedly immortal bodies over, oftentimes with rather
gruesome results. There were the “bike tag” days, where you had to knock the
other guy down in order not to be “it” anymore. There were the many gory and
gravel-implanting games of “chicken” . . . you get the idea, right? I was
neither a passive kid nor a prudent one, and, quite obviously, I didn’t have a
clue as to what a person could do with a bike beyond crashing around the
neighborhood. That being said, I always did enjoy riding my bike, even if the
manner in which I used a bicycle was more like “wrecking” than “riding.”
There was a slight hiccup at the beginning of my cycling “career” though,
even before the fact. By the age of 10, my parents had totally given up on
trying to keep up with the efficiency with which I could turn a perfectly
functional Schwinn Sting Ray into a useless heap of scrap metal. I remember
there being a meeting where the Heads of State informed me that I would have the
opportunity of buying my own bikes from now on - they made it seem like a
privilege. I was thoroughly tricked, and took this news enthusiastically - “You
mean I can buy anything I want,” I asked naively? Soon after, however, I
encountered a harsh reality, realizing that I didn’t have any money.
This realization ushered in the brief entrepreneurial epoch of my life, which
as I remember lasted around half a decade, between the years of 10 and 15 - this
was the time in my life directly after the Summit Meeting with the Heads of
State and immediately up to my entry into the mysterious inner workings of the
world of bike shops. Whoever said that necessity was the mother of invention
And so, together with my 9 year old “business partner” and neighbor, Tim
Beck, I mowed lawns, pulled weeds, raked, shoveled - whatever it took to buy a
bike - it took months, people!
The first one was a Huffy Carrera. I know, I know - not cool. Keep in mind
that I was about 11 at this time and any 10 speed was a cool 10 speed in my
book. And if it was cheap, well, that just meant that I could buy it sooner.
I’d race other kids around the neighborhood on that silvery behemoth, not having
a clue as to just how crappy a bike it was. As my parents had foreseen,
however, I took very good care of it - no jumping, no chicken, no nothing. And
there was relative peace in the kingdom for several years.
However, In 1984 I turned 14 years old, and had grown about five inches. As
a result of this, I ended up with some decidedly wobbly knees, not to mention an
embarrassingly unreliable low register in my vocal chords, but that’s beside the
point. On a regular doctor’s visit, I was informed that I had major fluid
build-up behind my left knee, due to the incessant pounding that running,
football, basketball, and the occasional falling out of trees had inflicted upon
it. The doctor called it a Baker’s Cyst, and he told me that any kind of sport
that caused major impact to my knees should be avoided at all costs.
This was crushing news to me, you see, because as a kid I had to keep
moving - that was my modus operandi, I guess. The two words “major impact”
practically defined everything I enjoyed about life! I was completely bowled
over by the news and just sat in the doctor’s office, feeling empty. I had to
ask him, “Are there any sports I can try?” He said, “Sure, why not try
cycling? It’s a low impact sport, and you’ll be able to build up those muscles
around your knees that haven’t quite caught up with your bones yet.” “Cycling,”
I thought unenthusiastically, “sure, why not?” It was pretty much my only
option. I must admit that the prospect didn’t thrill me because I didn’t see
cycling as very much of a competition.
Photo by Scott Schaffrick.
Well, rather than let it get to me, I decided that it was time to move up a
notch in the world of bikes. Besides, the Carrera had seen better days at this
point and wasn’t long for the neighborhood races anymore. I had been haunting
Bring’s Cycling and Fitness for a few weeks, eyeing up their brand-new
line - Peugeot. This was 1984, and Peugeot was a big name at that time, mostly
due, no doubt, to the exploits of riders like Gilbert Duclos-LaSalle, Stephen
Roche, and Phil Anderson. But, of course, I was clueless as to the goings on in
the professional European cycling scene at this point - I just thought that the
Peugeot Gran Course looked so cool that I had to have it. In fact, the only
bike racing I was aware of at this point was, well, racing my friends around the
figure eight shaped subdivision I grew up in. So, I put $50.00 down on that
beautiful $275.00 French masterpiece, kept hoping that I’d be able to pay it
off completely before the following summer, and I did just that.
After getting my hands on such a beautiful piece of machinery, I started
venturing out of the neighborhood more and more - first 10 miles, then 25, and
even 40 miles every once in a rare while, according to my gargantuan Cat Eye
Cyclometer which I thought was incredibly modern and cool. I started going on
touring trips with other kids my age as well as adults, and noticed that somehow
the “touring” always turned into “racing” with the other “tourists”.
And as fate would have it, the 1984 Olympic road race was televised on the
day I got back from such a week long “touring race”. I didn’t know much about
cycling, and was surprised to see a bike race on television, which shows how far
things have come in the United States in a relatively short time, now that we
have live broadcasts of all three Grand Tours. But I remember watching Alexi
Grewal beat Steve Bauer in that two-up sprint like it was yesterday. That
And so, I was definitely in need of a racing bike now, I reasoned, as the
Peugeot was more of a sport touring model - any excuse for a new bike, right?.
Once again, I saved up the money and traded in the Peugeot for a Team Fuji,
which had to be cool because it was decked out with Superbe Pro parts, right? I
thought so at any rate. I started riding “seriously,” trying to get in shape
for my first race, which would be the following summer.
Around this time, all of my loitering and pestering at the bike shop had
finally paid off, quite literally - they started paying me to hang out around the
bike shop all day long. This is when cycling culture started filtering through
the outer layers of my personality and took hold right in the center of who I
was. While learning how to true wheels and assemble bikes, I was also listening
to the other mechanics’ stories about the Snake Alley Criterium and Superweek,
some of the biggest races in the Midwest.
The first group ride was a real shock. Several of the guys who worked at the
shop or did the regular Tuesday night group ride were Cat. 2’s and 3’s, and the
guys who were Cat. 4’s were very fast as well, compared to me. I was only 15,
and most of them were in their early 20’s. The pain of that first group ride
was burned into my memory.
My friends from school, Tom and Troy, who were also just getting into racing,
showed up with me that Tuesday night. We were shaking in our Detto Pietro’s. I
didn’t know how to draft before that ride, but by the end of it, of necessity
once again, I was a master.
Photo by Scott Schaffrick.
After 10 miles, Troy was spit out the back of the group, and after 15 miles,
so was Tom. And after 25 miles, there I was, hopelessly lost, maniacally
swinging to and fro with the effort of trying to hold on at the back of a 20
person strong paceline that was motoring along at a continental 28mph. Every
time someone came to the back, they pushed me up to the front. They weren’t
even breathing hard! People kept yelling at me to hold my line, but I didn’t
know what the hell they were talking about - I was in full-on survival mode,
people! Seriously, I was even drooling! I’d usually last about 10 seconds at
the front and then narrowly miss clipping at least three people on my desperate
free fall back to the end of the line. I just kept thinking - “Don’t get
dropped! - you don’t know where the hell you are, and they aren’t going to wait!”
Yup, fear was the big motivator for me that day, and it worked. I didn’t get
dropped. The guys were impressed, even if they did perform some pretty
unflattering impressions of me trying to ride in a group for months afterwards.
That’s just how a bike shop works - the newbies get raked over the coals for a
while. But I knew that through their jokes they had accepted me into the fold,
and cycling became an even bigger part of my life.
From then on, it was racing almost every weekend in the spring and summer. I
fell in love with the Tour de France because it was usually the only race I ever
heard about in the United States at that time with my limited knowledge of the
sport, and my memories of the Tour from over the years are inextricably linked
with those of my own making from the same time periods.
Cycling had become a way of life, and the Tour de France is still the
sporting highlight of the year for me, even in this land of Superbowls, World
Series, and NBA Finals. Everything else just seems to lack . . . something. I
don’t know what it is, but I do know that, for me, it is an essential element of
life. Even though I hardly race at all anymore, I still ride, and my love for
riding has never diminished. And even though I’ve never been to the Tour in
person yet - a true sin, I know - part of that great race is alive and well within
Waiting for the Prologue on this fine Saturday morning in a hotel room
Wisconsin Rapids taught me that.
So I say Vive le Tour, and thanks for bringing it all back home!